On 6 October 2020, the Observatoire des libertés associatives (Observatory of Civil Society Freedoms) published its first report, A Repressed Citizenship. The report, which was written by a coalition of civic organisations and researchers in social science, paints a bleak picture of the state of civic organisations’ freedoms in contemporary France: civic organisations are now seeing their independence threatened and are facing obstacles that stand in the way of their work. This is a widespread phenomenon that is manifesting itself in a number of different ways and results in serious consequences. Something must be done to defend and promote the freedoms of civic organisations.
Four types of obstacles hindering civic organisations’ freedoms: symbolic, material, legal and physical obstacles
There are four different types of violations when it comes civic organisations’ freedoms. The first is symbolic attacks, i.e., attempts to bring them into disrepute: this includes all sorts of “ad hominem” attacks on activists’ reputations, particularly on social media, as well slanderous attacks, used to discredit certain groups, especially minorities (“communitarians”, “separatists”, etc.). There are countless examples. For instance, after the animal protection organisation L214 posted a video shot in a local slaughterhouse, the mayor of Alès (Gard), accused the group of using “terrorist” tactics. Similarly, the mayor of Cholet lashed out at the local president of Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH) for his alleged “totalitarian” actions – filing a lawsuit against the curfew policy during lockdown. At a parliamentary hearing on 24 September 2020, the organisation Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigré-e-s (GISTI) was violently attacked by Essonne MP Robin Reda (LR), president of the National Assembly’s fact-finding commission on racism. Reda challenged the right of undocumented immigrants to protest, and then accused GISTI of “encouraging illegal activities” and of contributing to the “rise of a dangerous form of anti-racism that threatens republican principles”. In addition to damaging the reputation of well-respected organisations, these attacks also play a role in deteriorating the quality of public debate. There is nothing wrong with questioning a group’s methods and strategy, but these kinds of insults represent a serious attack on civic organisations’ freedoms.
Then there are material or financial obstacles. These include deliberate subsidy cuts, or making it difficult for organisations to access sites or public spaces for meetings. This may seem trivial, but without material resources such as these, organisations can’t carry out their activities, grow or even get involved in the public debate.  This is what happened to French organisation Genepi, which has had its funding cut and its licence to work in prisons revoked. In November 2018,  France’s Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet declared that “Genepi was forwarding arguments that were very hostile to the public policy we are implementing [...]. They no longer had an attitude of partnership around common ambitions, but rather an attitude of almost direct and permanent opposition. So I made the decision to withdraw its funding.”
The third kind of obstacle is of a legal or regulatory nature. By legal obstacles, we mean the increasing number of lawsuits against groups or activists. Regulatory obstacles refer to practices such as denying certification, statutory agreements or regulatory authorisations, all of which can have significant material and financial consequences for organisations. For example, after they broke into the Cattenom nuclear power plant in October 2017, two Greenpeace activists were sentenced to prison in 2018, a first in the organisation’s history. A few days before the appeal hearing in 2019, thirty-one lawyers and legal experts published an op-ed in Journal du Dimanche, denouncing “a dangerous attempt to gag civil society, whose protection by the judiciary is essential to our democracy”. The prosecutor’s office did not, in the end, request a prison sentence for the activists, but French energy company EDF demanded €500,000 in damages, which amounts to an attempt at “gagging” – or what is known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Greenpeace regrets being “the repeated target of nuclear industrialists and condemns the extravagant legal sanctions imposed upon it, which go as far as €500,000 in moral damages and €700,000 in material damage. EDF’s legal strategy is to try and muzzle our organisation in order to stifle public protest against nuclear power.”
The last type of obstacle comes from the police. It can involve physical attacks, but also more subtle forms of repression. One example is the surreal scene that took place on 17 June 2018 on the river banks of the Seine, in Paris, just next to the Arab World Institute. More than 300 people, including councillors from the City of Paris and the Palestinian ambassador, were waiting for the Gaza Freedom Flotilla – two boats that set sail from Sweden for Gaza. The welcoming committee was kettled by riot police forces, and the boats forcefully prevented from docking by police prefecture Zodiacs, which pushed them away from the quay under the stunned eyes of activists and officials. Neither the city hall nor the police prefecture has given any explanation for this incredible act of censorship.
Yet another example comes from the organisation Utopia 56, which provides assistance to migrants in Calais. During lockdown, between 19 March and 8 April 2020, the organisation’s volunteers were fined at least eighteen times while they were on the streets providing support, equipment (tents, duvets, etc.) and food (meals, water) to migrants. The organisation has video footage of a conversation between a volunteer and a senior member of the riot police, who explicitly expressed his intention to “wear down” the group’s activists by increasing fines and police checks.
Destabilisation and mistrust: the consequences of the attacks
It is difficult to make generalisations about the consequences of these restrictions, as both the organisations and the attacks can be of a very different nature, as outlined above. Each form of restriction has, nevertheless, specific consequences over the short and the long term.
In the short and medium term, financial and material obstacles undermine organisations’ financial stability and their economic model, sometimes forcing them to consider staff cuts, greatly hindering their capacity to operate. Organisations are put in a position where they have to find (often urgently) new donors and backers in order to balance the books. Because of the increasingly widespread co-funding requirements (and the increasing number of “call for proposals” funding procedures), one subsidy cut can easily lead to others.
Two examples from the working-class neighbourhoods of Roubaix and Amiens may be mentioned here. In Roubaix, two civic organisations – Université populaire et citoyenne de Roubaix (UPC) and Association nouveau regard sur la jeunesse (ANRJ) – had provided assistance to local residents protesting against an urban renewal project pushed by the city council. They had their subsidies cut and were accused of “manipulating the residents” for political purposes. UPC had to let go of two of its employees. ANRJ lost all its public funding, was evicted from the municipal premises it was using and also had to make several of its employees redundant. Since then, mobilisation among the residents has declined, and both organisations have had to dramatically cut back their activities. Despite the official discourse in support of participatory democracy, by reducing resources for collective action, institutional sanctions such as these disempower citizens. In Amiens, Centre social d’Étouvie and the popular education organisation La Boite sans projet helped residents take action in order to prevent the closure of the only supermarket in their neighbourhood. After many public meetings, petitions and demonstrations, they managed to have a new supermarket opened to replace the closed one. Following their involvement, Centre social d’Étouvie was excluded from the main participatory democracy platforms in the neighbourhood as well as from the municipality’s calls for proposals. Their subsequent requests for city council funding have all been turned down.
The consequences of reputation damage are perhaps the hardest to pinpoint, because they entail subtle changes in the relations between organisations and the way in which they are perceived. Clearing your own name and reputation can be an uphill battle in the short term, especially for small organisations with few resources. Assemblée citoyenne des originaires de Turquie (ACORT) was accused of “communitarianism” by a councillor of Paris’s 17th arrondissement in January 2019, who then wrote to the prefect asking him to cut the organisation’s subsidies. Right-wing news magazine Valeurs actuelles also gave its two cents’ worth: “This organisation receives an annual subsidy of €5,000 from the city of Paris even though its outrageous public discourse poses a threat to national cohesion.” And Le Figaro added: “Can public funds be used to subsidise organisations that encourage a hateful attitude towards France and its police forces?” ACORT tried to defend itself, stating that it stood “against all forms of racism, including Islamophobia”, but the playing field wasn’t level and the damage was done. How can an organisation’s press release, lost on its website, have any hope of winning out against the public statements of an elected official, taken up by the press and plastered all over social media? Moreover, damaged reputations can make it more difficult for some groups to form alliances or coalitions, as they are seen as people that one shouldn’t associate with. One way of dealing with these attacks is to build a united front, but once an organisation or activist has suffered damage to their reputation, a “cordon sanitaire” is thrown around them, isolating them and generally resulting in a loss of motivation. In the medium and long term, symbolic attacks are often a precursor to other attacks, whether these be legal, financial or through the police.
Regarding the consequences of legal attacks, in the short term, time and financial resources are required, i.e., money to pay a lawyer. Legal attacks almost always involve heavy financial costs. Organisations are often denied access to legal assistance because the criteria can be unclear. In the medium and long term, targeted associations need to be able to see out the legal battle and stay on the case for several months or even years. In the event of a conviction, the consequences are fines or prison sentences.
In the short and medium term, the consequences of physical violation and police violence are moral and physical trauma, requiring a recovery period. In the longer term, if a complaint is filed, following up on the IGPN’s (French police disciplinary body) investigations and procedures can often be long and costly. Several organisations and collectives addressing police brutality (Adama Committee, Stop contrôle au faciès, etc.) are often hindered in their efforts to provide victims with support. Police restrictions are also a major deterrent to collective action, as many citizens may be reluctant to get involved in view of the risks.
Diversion, exhaustion and self-censorship
In addition to these direct effects, all organisations that have had their freedoms curtailed are, to varying degrees, facing two further consequences: a diversion from their core mission and self-censorship due to the threat of sanctions.
Being attacked requires organisations to make a significant investment both in terms of time and human and financial resources. However, organisations’ don’t have infinite resources at their fingertips. If these resources are used for nothing more than keeping the organisation afloat or continuing its basic survival, it means they’re not being put towards the organisation’s main goals. Ultimately, attacking an organisation is a way of diverting it from its core mission, slowing it down, forcing it to cease or reduce its activities. The energy required to fight back sidetracks the organisation from its objectives. Aside from the fact this is energy that could be used elsewhere, such attacks also “wear activists down”. Activists come out of these battles exhausted. In the words of a member of a tenants’ association in Montpellier facing numerous restrictions: “The institutions tire you out. The urgency of the situation kills you... […] Public authorities play with that. Except that they have the time, and we don’t. They have the money and we don’t. [...] They try to kill us by wearing us down. It’s a way of tiring us out.”  It can be a very deliberate strategy, as it was in the case of Utopia 56, when volunteers were targeted with fines and arrests.
Then there is the reflex to self-censor in view of the threats, altering one’s behaviour out of fear of potential sanctions. During the interviews held for the purpose of this report, people repeatedly mentioned this “Sword of Damocles” that hangs over them: the risk of sanction and subsidy cuts, potentially losing access to public spaces, falling into disrepute, or losing one’s certification. The president of an anti-discrimination organisation (who wishes to remain anonymous) told us of his hesitation to sign a call for action for an anti-racist rally in 2019: “I told myself, if we sign, we’ll be an open target. It’s happened before. We lost funding when I went to a rally [a few years earlier, in a pro-Palestinian demonstration], the funding was cut the following year. So it’s a bit tricky. You wonder ’is it strategically interesting or not [to sign this call for action]?’ ” In the end, the organisation chose not to sign it.
This example may seem anecdotal: it may seem of little importance whether or not an organisation signs a call for action. It is, however, indicative of entrenched mechanisms that steer organisations towards specialisation and depoliticisation. Specialisation encourages keeping politics at arm’s length, because taking any kind of strong stance would involve jeopardising subsidies. It changes ordinary interactions within an organisation. The choice of whether or not to sign a call for action reflects a whole world behind it: the many ordinary discussions that won’t happen, the political debates that won’t arise and, generally speaking, a distancing of citizens from the world of politics.  Threats to organisations’ freedoms discourages them from playing their role as critical observers of society and democratic watchdogs. In order not to offend an elected official or a public funder, many organisations, social centres and participatory initiatives choose to concentrate on their least subversive activities, the least “political” in the noblest sense of the term, and to devote themselves to “harmless” socio-cultural initiatives.  As a result, a culture of depoliticisation is gradually taking hold of organisations, with civic protest being set aside.
How to fight back: publicising, responding, joining forces
There are two main ways that organisations can react and respond to these attacks.  Firstly, they can publicise the attacks, openly denounce them and hold the institutions behind them accountable. The organisation Danger Montpertuis, which was set up to fight a wood ethanol refinery project near Vichy (Allier), is a good example. In September 2018, the Vichy Intercommunal Council lodged three complaints against the organisation for defamation, dissemination of fake news and fly-posting. All three were dismissed, but the organisation was sidetracked from its work and forced to take defensive action. The organisation reacted by widely publicising the affair and posting several videos online about the issue.  Indeed, one thing that makes these legal attacks easier is that the attackers remain under the radar; they don’t attract the attention of the media, or appear harmless enough. But when you put the pieces of the puzzle together, it becomes clear that they represent a threat to democracy. The first response should, therefore, be to publicise the attacks: as soon as they’re out in the open, they automatically become less effective, and it can become difficult or costly for public authorities to insist on a course of action that appears undemocratic. This is what the report published by the Observatory of Civil Society Freedoms illustrates: documenting restrictions and attacks is one way of fighting them. Publicising them, in whichever way possible, constitutes a first step towards rejecting these attacks and inciting scandal. Another way to publicise repression is for organisations and their supporters to organise public protest events. Case de santé, for example, a Toulouse-based community health centre, organised several demonstrations and rallies outside the offices of public authorities after its subsidies were cut.
A second form of response consists in joining forces with other organisations in order to give greater weight to your cause while also making it more costly for institutions to attack you. When Genepi was targeted by the prison administration, it managed to rally around to get the support of other organisations which they knew might be next in line. The Observatoire international des prisons, Syndicat des avocats de France (Lawyers’ Union), Syndicat de la Magistrature (Judges’ Union) and Henri Leclerc, a leading lawyer and honorary president of Ligue des Droits de l’Homme sent a joint press release, entitled, “The government is trying to muzzle Genepi: who’ll be next?” to the Ministry of Justice and the press. A group of about sixty organisations also challenged French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet with an open letter published by Mediapart on 12 November 2018. Similarly, after a lawsuit was filed against Tous migrants de Briançon, the organisation put out a call for support, and several national organisations such as Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, Amnesty International, Anafé and GISTI came to its aid. The local media also covered the story. Joining forces is the only way to change the rules of the democratic game and shift the balance of power between organisations and public authorities over the long term, so as to build a more protective environment that shields organisations from arbitrary powers. This is exactly what the Coalition pour les libertés associatives (Coalition for the Freedoms of Civic Organisations) strives to achieve – the organisation behind the Observatory of Civil Society Freedoms, which has been developing retaliation strategies against repression since 2019.
There is much talk about the rise of individualism and the population’s supposed lack of interest in public affairs. When, in such a context, organisations are choosing to retreat from the political sphere due to attacks, it’s clear that democracy is under threat. Faced with a shrinking democratic space, it is up to organisations to come up with strategies to defend themselves.
Coalition pour les libertés associatives (Coalition for the Freedoms of Organisations) was formed in early 2019 and brings together some twenty associations active in various areas. It aims to document and publicise the various forms of pressure that French civil society is being subjected to. It has launched an Observatory alongside researchers from the Alinsky Institute. L.A. Coalition, coordinated by VoxPublic, also provides assistance to organisations through handbooks and joint events (except during lockdown) as a way to to draw on the experience of its members and promote effective solutions.
For more information, see the website: https://www.lacoalition.fr
“Faire face et riposter aux attaques contre les libertés associatives”, methodological guide and testimonials (June 2020)
“Une citoyenneté réprimée : 100 cas de restriction des libertés associatives, 12 pistes pour les protéger”, first report by the Observatory of Civil Society Freedoms (October 2020)
If you wish to report a restriction or an attack on your organisation, see: https://www.lacoalition.fr/Signaler-une-entrave